N PERSIAN HISTORY, the most noteworthy contribution to religious philosophy is made by Zoroastrianism. According to this philosophy, not only are truth and goodness eternal, but falsehood and evil also share eternity with them. Both have separate gods who have their own independent orders of management. There is a god of goodness, Ahura Mazda, also known as the god of light and there is a god of evil, Ahraman, also known as the god of darkness; each has his own well-defined role to play. All activity within the universe results from the collision and interaction of these two combatant gods, who are eternally locked in a grim battle of survival and supremacy.
The powers of the god of goodness are constantly endeavouring to dominate those of the god of evil. Like a see-saw, the outcome of this struggle is always changing sides sometimes in favour of goodness and sometimes in favour of evil. Thus Zoroastrian philosophy presents a simple explanation for the coexistence of evil and suffering, goodness and happiness, by attributing their origin to two different sources. All the ills in the world—pain, grief, distress, ignorance and suffering—are believed to ensue when the god of evil gains the upper hand.
It should be noted that what Zoroasteras* (c. sixth century BC) really taught was that the force of good and evil coexist to enable man to exercise his free will. Thus, man would ultimately be judged in accordance with his good or bad intentions and deeds. Zoroasteras also taught that the universe was created by the god of light and that the forces of good will ultimately prevail.
One can safely deduce from an in-depth study of Zoroastrianism that what was later referred to as an independent God of darkness, was only identical to the concept of a devil found in traditional religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It seems that at some stage the followers of Zoroasteras began to misunderstand his philosophy of good and evil, and took them to be the manifestation of two independent, conscious supreme beings who coexisted eternally. This is the essence of the Zoroastrian concept of dualism. A second glance at Zoroastrian philosophy can lead a careful observer to the conclusion that it is only a matter of different terminology which creates a false parallax between them.
The role ascribed to Satan in other religions is ascribed to Ahraman in Zoroastrianism. Most likely the adherents of Zoroastrians of later ages got the concept of Satan mixed up with the idea of an independent god of evil, believed to be the supreme master of the forces of darkness. This one blunder on their part led to yet another blunder. Ahraman, the 'God of Evil', is portrayed as sharing eternity with the One and Only Supreme Creator.
It is hard to identify the age when this erroneous belief crept into Zoroastrian doctrines but one thing is certain that Cyrus (c. 590–529 BC), an exemplary pupil of Zoroasteras, was far from being a dualist. The lofty position he held in Zoroastrianism was even higher than that held by Ashoka in Buddhism.
To judge Zoroastrianism through the mirror of Cyrus, therefore, would be no less reliable than judging Buddhism through the mirror of Ashoka. The monotheism of Cyrus can be proved from the tribute paid to him in the Old Testament (Isaiah 45:1–5). It is impossible to conceive "the God of Israel" to have praised Cyrus in such high terms if he were a dualist. Thus spoke prophet Isaiahas:
"Thus says the LORD to His anointed,
To Cyrus, whose right hand I have held—
To subdue nations before him
And loose the armor of kings,
To open before him the double doors,
So that the gates will not be shut:
'I will go before you
And make the crooked places straight;
I will break in pieces the gates of bronze
And cut the bars of iron.
I will give you the treasures of darkness
And hidden riches of secret places,
That you may know that I, the LORD,
Who call you by your name,
Am the God of Israel.
For Jacob My servant's sake,
And Israel My elect,
I have even called you by your name;
I have named you, though you have not known Me.
I am the LORD, and there is no other;
There is no God besides Me..." 1
Cyrus the great is also remembered in the Cyrus legend as a tolerant and ideal monarch who was called 'father of his people' by the ancient Persians. In the Bible an outstanding homage is paid to him as the liberator of the Jews captive in Babylonia.
In short, the figure of Cyrus has survived throughout history as a man of exceptional qualities. He built a vast empire the like of which was seldom created by other warriors of heroic fame. Among the emperors, he is the only one who escaped censure by all the historians who ever wrote about great men of history. None could ever find a speck of a blemish in his character as a man or in his conduct as a monarch. He became the epitome of the greatest qualities expected of a ruler. In wars he was bold and dauntless, in conquest magnanimous. His unshakeable belief in the Unity of God must have sprung from Zoroasteras himself.
Zoroastrianism in all its features is closest to Judaism and Islam. Hence its precept of goodness and evil, light and darkness had to be the same as it was in Judaism and Islam. 'Ahraman' is very likely therefore, another name for Satan and no more.
HE ONLY QUESTION which remains to be resolved is, why do the Zoroastrians find the idea of duality so fascinating that once it took root into their doctrine, it continued to flourish securing a permanent place for itself? It must have happened during the phase of intense philosophical activity when the question of evil and suffering specifically bothered their thinkers. This is a problem which has been plaguing man since time immemorial. Many religious intellects in different ages have offered different explanations to justify their belief in a good God. In Athens too, during the same general age, this question had engaged the attention of many ethical, religious or secular thinkers. For them it was not too difficult to resolve the question, because the majority of Athenians believed in mythical gods for whom it was not rare to tell lies or play tricks upon humans or even gods. The concept of such trickster gods is fully endorsed by the Iliad of Homer.
Yet among them, there was born in 470 BC a monotheist philosopher whose name was Socrates. He was a prophet among philosophers and a philosopher among prophets. He believed in the unshakeable Unity of God. Of His absolute goodness he did not entertain the slightest doubt. This is what he pronounced during his last speech before the Athenian senate. He believed in God, the possessor of absolute goodness, not merely through his intellectual and metaphysical exercise, he believed because he had personally known Him as such, right from the early days of his childhood. Nay, he was brought up in the very lap of God with His personal love and care. This was Socrates who also tackled this question with profound logic but it is a logic largely spent on proving the impossibility of any evil originating from God. When it came to the issue of evil and suffering in the world, he dismissed them as human errors, logically impossible to have emanated from Him. He had to be good, He was good and He could not be anything but good. Hence, evil must have been generated by earthly people, God having no share in their defiled practices. His answer was simple but left room for others to assail him philosophically so that ultimately he could be driven to an indefensible position. The Zoroastrian thinkers in Iran however, could not be satisfied with this answer. They probed the question and further enquired as to who those evil men were and who had created them. If it were God, He had to be ultimately responsible. Thus to break His ties with evil altogether, the Zoroastrian intellects must have devised the existence of another creator beside Him. One was referred to as the god of goodness and the other as the god of evil; both enjoyed their godhead in their exclusive areas of light and darkness.
Incidentally, it should also be mentioned here that all Zoroastrians do not subscribe to this so-called Zoroastrian doctrine of duality. There are those, though small in number today, who strongly defend the cause of Unity within Zoroastrianism. Most of these unitarians must have been powerfully pulled towards Islam as it entered Persia. It should be remembered that apart from duality and the consequent fire worship, the rest of the Zoroastrian faith is much closer to Islam than to any other faith.
In Zoroastrianism, God—referred to as Ahura Mazda—is described exactly in the same terms and with the same attributes as in all other major religions. Thus by blaming all the evil and suffering upon the scapegoat Ahraman, the Zoroastrian thinkers thought they had ultimately resolved the dilemma. But it was not to be so. Socrates, also a contemporary of theirs, might have heard of it or thought of it himself, yet he rejected it and faithfully adhered to the Unity of God. This Zoroastrian excuse, though it seems to solve one problem, creates an even more defiant one. To that we shall turn later but presently it must be remembered that evil in itself has no independent existence which needs to be created.
In reality however, evil is only another name for the absence of goodness. Its absence only becomes conspicuous when light and shade play hide and seek. Yet shade is not a substantial thing. It is only light that matters and seems to create shadows. Shadows however are not created by light but are the name for its absence. They are born whenever light is obstructed. There was no need therefore for the Zoroastrians of later ages to create a devil of their own by the name of Ahraman. Likewise it is goodness alone which needs to be created, sin will by itself appear whenever goodness is eschewed. Thus if Ahraman is the god of darkness, he himself is the outcome of the negation of light and virtue, and not a creator of them.
In the light of what has passed, we can safely conclude that Zoroasteras believed in the God of goodness and in Him alone. He was a recipient of revelation from Him. For him knowledge and eternal truth were directly bestowed by revelation, not merely deduced through logic or inspiration.
Returning once again to the Zoroastrian solution of the dilemma of the existence of suffering and evil, let us examine this philosophy once again in depth. How did suffering come into being? Whatever is the meaning of suffering? If there was a separate god who contrived evil and another who fashioned goodness, then what will be the final outcome of their strife to gain victory over the other? Who will win and why? Although the Zoroastrians seem to entertain the hope of a final victory of goodness, their philosophy does not offer any explanation as to why the power of goodness must prevail. If the two gods are independent, but one is weaker than the other, then the powerful God must have annihilated the weaker since time immemorial. Thus with the passage of time goodness should have finally prevailed over the forces of evil. Since this is not the case, both the gods could have been equally balanced in their respective powers, engaged in an endless game of see-saw. In that case the hope for the ultimate victory of goodness over evil is impossible to entertain.
Another important question to which we feel the need to return, is the question of suffering. As has already been demonstrated, the dualist philosophy of Zorastrianism despite its apparent advantage fails to resolve the dilemma. Dualism when examined in depth is found to be absolutely inadequate in solving the mystery of suffering in the scheme of creation by a Benignant Creator. This question we propose to take up in the following chapter independently on its own merit.
- The Holy Bible (1982) The New King James Version. Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville. Isaiah 45:1–5